As April is Autism Awareness month, my publicist scheduled many events to coincide with the topic of my book. Last weekend was a book signing at big chain bookstore in Calabasas, California. If you aren’t familiar, it’s the town north of Los Angeles where the Kardashians live. So paint me surprised when I arrived and the whole front window is my book, a poster complete with a head shot of me announcing my signing. For about five seconds I had a Kardashian moment. Meaning, I felt like a celebrity. Especially later, when Howie Mandell walked in and said hi to me. (No, he didn’t buy a book; believe me that would have been plastered all over social media if I had that photo op.) This is going to be great! I thought.
Honestly, standing at the front door of a bookstore is not what I expected. Even with the beautiful poster of my face propped up next to me. I was really nervous to be front and center. But tried to reassure myself: “This is prime real estate–really, it’s going to be great!”
However, if people don’t notice you or look away, it makes it tough to sell them a book. Then, there are the many people who ask “Where is the fiction section?” or my favorite, “Where’s the bathroom?” The first few times, I said “Sorry, I don’t work here”, and pointed to the table stacked with my books. After that didn’t get them jazzed to snatch it up, I familiarized myself with the layout of the store and started pointing people on their way. What can I say? My mother taught me to be polite.
So, after a short time of standing by my table of books, like a stiff Vanna White, smiling so brightly (it was borderline menacing) at every person who opened the door, a young gentleman walked up to me.
“Are you famous, or in the movies?” He asked awkwardly.
“No.” I chuckled. “I wrote a book, that’s why I’m standing here.” Pointing at the table, trying to sound sarcastically amusing. But he looked at the book and then at me and then quickly away. And I knew. He was autistic. He didn’t say right away that he was, but being a mom and around autistic people for awhile, I have a sense for it.
“My name is Alan and I’m very happy to meet you.” He held out his hand stiffly. Even though he said it without much expression in his voice, and his handshake was awkward, I knew he meant it. I smiled so broadly at him, I probably made him uncomfortable. He looked down for a second and then with a steady gaze, began to tell me about himself. Unprompted. And I loved it. Every minute of it. He told me that he had autism and it was okay. He was fine being autistic and his life was good. (Okay, wipe away your tears now.)
There would be a pause and I could tell he had run out of things to say. So sweet Alan, would say it was “nice to meet you” and walk away. He would come back a few minutes later, tell me some more about himself and then leave again. I know how hard it must have been for him to approach me again and again. But, each time he would ignite a powerful feeling of pride in my heart. It sounds odd that I would be proud of a stranger, but he gave me assurance for the future of my son.
In those few visits, I learned that Alan lives with his parents; is 33 and drives. I could tell this part made him very happy. It should-driving is the ultimate form of freedom; especially in L.A. where public transportation is sorely lacking.
I asked him what he did with his day, and he told me he worked with his father, whom he has “a very good relationship with”. This made me pause and smile. I hope Alan’s father knows this, because for him to tell me-made me hope my son would someday feel this way.
I asked him what he did at his father’s office and he explained his father was as doctor and he helped on the computer and filing. I asked if he liked doing this—and he emphatically said ‘yes’. Again, Alan’s Dad, you are very lucky he speaks so highly of you (and your wife, he told me he loves being at home because of his “good relationship with both his parents”). You must be great parents if he is able to brag about you.
Later I had a lull in visitors, and ran to fill up my tea. On my way back he intercepted me. He had a serious look on his face and began to tell me a part of his story I did not like.
“I want to tell you about something that happened to me yesterday. I was at the park trying to explain to people that I was autistic. And they made fun of me and told me to go away.” He looked straight into my eyes and I felt I could see sadness to his depths. “They were assholes.” He looked down at his hands.
“Yes, Alan, they are.” I said in complete agreement yet shaking my head in disgust. (And a little more proud Alan knew how to cuss properly.)
We talked some more about these “barbaric animals” as he called them, found another lull and he said he was going to leave. We said goodbye again, I told him to stay happy about his life. He looked at me strangely and I can only imagine him thinking “what else would I do?” A little while later I saw him again, across the bookstore. He walked by my table glancing over a few times, waved and said, “Okay, I’m going home now. Bye.”
“Bye, Alan. Take care.” I said to his back, not sure he heard me.
And that was the last I saw of him.
I know what you are thinking: How kismet that someone with autism would approach me as I was there with my book about autism? But actually as soon as we started talking, I knew he was the reason I was there. Not to sell a certain amount of books, or convince people how good the book was, but to be reminded the messages I tried to portray in my book. Alan wanted me to understand what he was trying to say to those assholes in the park. As he walked away, I realized they were the same things everyone wants: Acceptance, love and happiness.
Thank you Alan, for being you. And being happy about who you are. That’s a lesson we all could use.